TIMELINE OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS' FIGHT AGAINST DISCRIMINATION
Only a few years after a corporate predecessor of United Airlines hired the world's first stewardesses, that same carrier instituted the first formal policy of
refusing to employ married women for cabin service. Single-women-only hiring and termination upon marriage became industry-wide policies. The male flight
attendants employed by some carriers were never subject to such restrictions.
American Airlines instituted the first age restriction on stewardesses’ continuing employment. The policy called for stewardesses to retire from passenger
service upon reaching their 32nd birthday. The national flight attendant union, the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA), protested and
limited application of the policy to new hires, setting a precedent of “grandmother rights” for stewardesses hired before age ceilings were introduced.
Other airlines gradually followed American’s lead in instituting age limits of 32 or 35 applied only to stewardesses, who were terminated or transferred to
ground jobs when they reached the age ceiling. By 1965, fourteen of the thirty-eight carriers in the U.S. with government-certified routes had age restrictions of
32 or 35 on stewardesses’ continued employment. Because age ceilings were typically imposed, as at American, only on women hired after the effective dates
of the policies, a handful of “aged” stewardesses remained employed as living proof of how arbitrary it was to claim that reaching 32 meant charm and grace,
not to mention competence, suddenly ended. Flight attendants sporadically protested airline age ceilings and marriage bans in collective bargaining and union
grievance proceedings, but to no avail.
Growing tensions between the national flight attendant union, ALSSA, and its parent union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), as well as conflicts among
flight attendant unionists, sparked intra- and inter-union battles. Because flight attendants lacked the power to secure their ultimate goal, a fully autonomous
union, they ended up splitting into two, rival unions by 1962 that were still subordinate to male-dominated parent unions: the new Steward and Stewardess
Division of ALPA, and ALSSA, which had become a local of the Transport Workers Union of America.
April 17, 1963
Eight ALSSA stewardesses held a press conference to indict American Airlines’ policy of retiring them at age 32. Thirty-five-year-old Barbara “Dusty” Roads,
veteran union lobbyist, even asked, “Do I look like an old bag?” The women’s protest captured national media attention and sparked debate on the narrowness
of airlines’ ideal of feminine allure.
July 2, 1964
President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Act barred private employers of twenty-five or more workers from discriminating against jo
b applicants and employees on the basis of sex, race, national origin, or religion. The act, however, provided a potential loophole in the “BFOQ” clause, which
allowed employers to discriminate in “those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably
necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.”
The mere fact of Title VII’s existence as of mid-1964 provided an opening wedge for flight attendants to press for changes to age and marriage rules in collective
bargaining. Union negotiators found airlines newly willing to cede some ground on the long-disputed issues. Some, for instance, granted six-month grace periods
to stewardesses after marriage or revised age ceilings from 32 to 35. Still, many airlines remained committed to basic age and/or marital restrictions.
December 17, 1964
At the urging of ALSSA, the New York State Commission on Human Rights (NYSCHR) launched an informal investigation into age discrimination in airline policies
covering initial hires and continued employment. The NYSCHR’s subsequent probe represented the most promising of stewardesses’ attempts to use state anti-
discrimination laws to challenge age and marriage rules.
July 2, 1965
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began its work of interpreting and implementing Title VII. Stewardesses were among the very first
working women to file charges of sex discrimination with the Commission, specifically targeting airline age ceilings and marriage bans. In so doing, they joined
other aggrieved women in ensuring that the EEOC would pay attention to sex bias as well as racial discrimination, its foremost priority initially.
September 2, 1965
Flight attendant union president Colleen Boland, accompanied by several stewardesses, testified at hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives on the
problems of older workers. Boland charged several airlines with extreme age discrimination for terminating stewardesses at age 32 or 35. Stewardesses’ day at
Congress and Representatives’ chivalrous and witty remarks on the injustice of airline age ceilings garnered national headlines and inspired lively media debate
on airlines’ marketing of nubile, youthful femininity. While media and congressional commentary on the plight of “aging” stewardesses was largely irreverent,
stewardesses’ protest to Congress generated widespread evidence of public disfavor with airline age discrimination.
September 14, 1965
The Steward & Stewardess Division of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA-SSD) won a landmark grievance award against Braniff’s no-marriage rule, the first
successful challenge to an airline age ceiling or marriage ban. The neutral referee who ruled on the grievance cited Title VII as a factor in his finding against
Late September 1965
The EEOC issued general guidelines on sex discrimination, including the finding that firing female employees for marriage when the policy was not applied to
male co-workers was discriminatory.
December 16, 1965
The EEOC issued its first ruling on a complaint brought by a flight attendant against an airline for sex discrimination, in Evenson v. Northwest. Commissioner
Aileen Hernandez, the foremost champion of women’s rights at the early EEOC, found “reasonable cause” to believe that Northwest had illegally discriminated
against Evenson in firing her for marrying because it did not apply a marriage ban to its male flight attendants.
January 20, 1966
Northwest flight attendant Judith Evenson filed the first Title VII civil action against an airline in a Virginia federal court, charging that her termination for
marriage was illegal sex discrimination. (Evenson would never receive a ruling on the merits of her case, however; apparently she settled with the carrier
March 23, 1966
The NYSCHR issued a blanket finding against airline age rules, denying that age represented a “bona fide occupation qualification” for the flight attendant
occupation. The ruling defined individual inability to perform duties as the only cause for termination of stewardesses before the standard retirement age for
other airline employees.
As a result of Judith Evenson’s Title VII civil action, Northwest Airlines and the airline industry’s lobbying group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), requested
a general finding from the EEOC on whether airline age and marriage restrictions categorically violated Title VII. The EEOC obliged and began a comprehensive
study of the airline policies in questions.
May 10, 1966
At a five-hour public hearing before the EEOC, flight attendant representatives and airline legal counsel respectively denied and affirmed that sex is a bona fide
occupational qualification for the flight attendant occupation.
November 9, 1966
The EEOC issued the general ruling requested by Northwest and the ATA, declaring categorically that sex is not a bona fide occupational qualification for the
flight attendant occupation. The EEOC’s ruling effectively rendered illegal a range of discriminatory hiring and employment practices in flight attendant
employment, beyond the original policies in question concerning stewardesses’ age and marital status. Many airlines refused to hire any men for cabin service,
and the few that did employ male flight attendants typically offered them preferential treatment in benefits and promotions.
Within a few days, the airlines secured a temporary injunction from a federal court barring release of the EEOC ruling and any resultant action by the
Commission on stewardesses’ charges of discrimination. The airlines charged a conflict of interest in the ruling: outgoing Commissioner Aileen Hernandez voted
on the airline case while she was Executive Vice President of the new National Organization for Women, a group that only weeks earlier had issued a public
statement in support of stewardesses’ anti-discrimination efforts. Ironically, Hernandez was leaving the EEOC in protest of the Commission’s (and the Johnson
administration’s) laxity in combating sex discrimination. She also had not formally begun her work for NOW when she voted on the airline case. But the airlines
successfully used her overlapping involvement with NOW and the EEOC to paint the Commission as too influenced by feminism to rule impartially.
February 24, 1967
The airlines’ conflict of interest charge against the EEOC, based on Commissioner Hernandez’s alleged feminist bias, persuaded a federal district court judge to
enjoin the EEOC permanently from releasing its ruling on airline policies and Title VII. The court directed the EEOC either to rehear the case on airline policies
and issue a new finding or drop the matter altogether.
March and August 1967
The U.S. Senate and House held hearings on proposed federal legislation to ban age discrimination in employment against workers from the age of 40 to 65.
Flight attendant union leaders testified in favor of a specific clause concerning stewardesses’ forced retirement at 32 or 35, renewing public debate on airline
discrimination. ALSSA president Colleen Boland warned that flight attendants might be forced to strike en masse over the age issue, a threat that never
materialized but which indicated flight attendants’ growing militancy as progress on ending discriminatory work rules eluded them. Marge Cooper, head of the
other flight attendant union, proclaimed that airlines’ only legitimate purpose and goal was to sell safe air transport and that sex-obsessed employment policies
and marketing were at best a distraction from and at worst a hindrance to passenger safety.
Despite the growing number of grievance cases in which flight attendant successfully challenged terminations for marriage, Terry Van Horn Baker lost her
marriage grievance against United. The loss was a major setback for flight attendants, because of United’s size and its particularly staunch resistance to
changing discriminatory policies in the face of growing legal and labor relations challenges.
Nancy Wheelock won her marriage grievance against American Airlines. Because American was, like United, among the largest employers of stewardesses and
most resistant to their anti-discrimination efforts, Wheelock’s victory was an important step forward for flight attendants after the failed grievance at United the
September 12, 1967
The EEOC held another public hearing on airline employment restrictions and whether sex was a bona fide occupational qualification for airline passenger
service. Flight attendants and airline counsel presented the same basic arguments as in the May 1966 hearing.
October 19, 1967
Cooper v. Delta, the first Title VII lawsuit to produce a federal court ruling on airline sex discrimination, ended in a disheartening defeat for flight attendants. The
federal court in Louisiana denied that Delta’s marriage ban was discriminatory under Title VII. The presiding judge not only found that Delta could restrict its all-
female flight attendants’ employment on nearly any basis without engaging in sex discrimination, since the employees in question were all women. The judge
also questioned whether sex discrimination itself was a concern of public policy.
December 15, 1967
Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, but declined to include any specific provisions to address stewardesses’ anomalous
situation. The act protected workers from age discrimination only between the ages of 40 to 65. So much for flight attendants’ lobbying efforts over the past two
January 25, 1968
In American Airlines v. State Commission for Human Rights, the New York State Appellate Court rejected stewardess Eloise Soots’s charge of age discrimination
against American Airlines. Soots’s was the first case to test whether the state’s anti-discrimination law could serve as a legal remedy for stewardesses against
airline policies of forced early retirement. The appellate court found that the age policy could not be legally overturned because the state law on age
discrimination only protected workers from 40 to 65 years of age.
February 24, 1968
The EEOC released a new blanket ruling denying sex as a bona fide occupational qualification for the flight attendant occupation. The ruling went unchallenged
by the airline industry. The ruling established a general guideline for the Commission to proceed in processing individual stewardesses’ charges of
discrimination under Title VII.
June 20, 1968
The EEOC issued three individual rulings, setting permanent precedents, on airline age and marriage policies: Neal v. American, Dodd v. American, and Colvin v.
Piedmont. With these three cases, the EEOC declared age and marital restrictions on stewardesses’ employment to be illegal sex discrimination under Title VII,
whether or not a carrier also employed men as flight attendants and treated them differently.
The Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association and American Airlines ended a protracted contract dispute. The carrier’s no-marriage rule had been a major
sticking point. The dispute was finally settled just before the stewardesses were scheduled to go on strike. Under the new contract of August 1968, American’s
all-female flight attendants finally won the right to marry without forfeiting their jobs.
United and the Steward & Stewardess Division of the Air Line Pilots Association signed a new contract that granted stewardesses the right to marry and remain
employed. The new United stewardess contract effectively brought an end to airlines’ enforcement of single-women-only policies.
December 2, 1969
In Lansdale v. United, flight attendants received another discouraging blow in the federal courts. As in Cooper v. Delta (1967), the federal court denied that
stewardess Marian Lansdale had suffered illegal sex discrimination in being terminated upon marrying. In this case, the court used a “sex-plus” interpretation of
Title VII: it reasoned that Lansdale was fired not just because of her sex, but because of her sex and the “plus” factor of marital status. Because Title VII did not
specifically address the “plus” factor, the court determined that the marriage ban did not violate the federal civil rights law. (In 1971, in Phillips v. Martin
Marietta, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed “sex-plus” interpretations as a legal rationale for allowing sex-related employment policies to escape scrutiny under
January 21, 1970
In Sprogis v. United, a federal trial court finally ruled in a stewardess’s favor on whether airline marriage bans were illegal under Title VII. The court dismissed
the logic of “sex-plus” and found that neither sex nor marital status was a bona fide occupational qualification for the flight attendant occupation. The ruling
was upheld on appeal. The Sprogis rulings established firm precedents outlawing airline marriage bans, and by implication, age restrictions as well.
April 8, 1971
The most historically important of Title VII lawsuits concerning sex discrimination in flight attendant employment, Diaz v. Pan American, received a trial court
ruling in Florida. Diaz, a class action suit initiated by a male applicant denied employment in passenger service by Pan Am, turned exclusively on whether sex
was a bona fide occupational qualification for the flight attendant occupation. The carrier offered historical experience, customer preference, expert
psychological testimony, and practical concerns in hiring procedures as justifications for its policy of hiring only women for passenger service. The trial judge
accepted the carrier’s arguments as sufficient to meet the BFOQ standard as defined in Title VII, that is, an instance where was sex was “a bona fide
occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” Had the Diaz trial ruling stood on appeal, it
would have set a precedent suggesting sex discrimination was legal as long as employers could show that it was better for business than treating applicants or
April 6, 1972
The appellate court reversed in Diaz v. Pan Am, setting an important precedent restricting employers’ ability to claim BFOQ exceptions to Title VII. The appellate
court read the BFOQ clause to require a strict business necessity test. To be legal, the Fifth Circuit reasoned, sex discrimination had to be necessary to the
essential business of an employer. In Pan Am’s case, the court found that sex discrimination was merely a convenience, not a necessity, and the sex of flight
attendants mattered only in tangential concerns, not in the carrier’s basic business of transporting passengers safely. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court
turned down Pan Am’s request for a higher appeal.
As a result of the Diaz appellate ruling, men abruptly began to enter the flight attendant occupation in greater numbers, though the occupation would continue
to be largely female.
November 12, 1973
Laffey v. Northwest resulted in a sweeping finding of sex discrimination at Northwest in differential treatment of male and female cabin attendants in pay,
promotions, benefits, and weight monitoring. The federal court ruling, which stood on appeal, enjoined the carrier from any unequal treatment of flight
attendants thereafter other than on the basis of seniority.
Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as an amendment to Title VII, clarifying working women’s right to maternity leaves and benefits. The Act
required employers to treat pregnancy on the same basis as other temporary worker disabilities. Flight attendants would nonetheless continue to struggle with
airlines over pregnancy policies, especially over whether companies could automatically ground pregnant attendants as soon as they gave notice of their
condition or whether the women could fly as long as their personal physicians approved.
Flight attendants continued efforts to end strict weight policies. Title VII cases regarding weight, however, would drag on into the 1990s, with mixed results.
Flight attendants argued that their weight should only matter in terms of their physical capacity to perform their duties. Several courts ruled that airlines could
impose weight rules as “appearance standards,” which, as such, are not subject to Title VII scrutiny. Some courts required airlines to subject male flight
attendants also to weight monitoring programs if they were imposed on women, but others found that airlines could apply weight standards to men and women
unequally. Despite a few major victories and a loosening of weight rules on many carriers, many flight attendants remained subject to the embarrassing rituals
of weight monitoring by supervisors and the threat of termination for being “overweight.”
© Kathleen M. Barry, 2006 -